Guatemala, once the beating heart of the ancient Mayan Empire, is now known for its beautiful lakes, volcanic beaches, and idiosyncratic traditions. An eclectic blend of ancient beliefs and Spanish tradition fuse together in this tiny picturesque slice of Latin America.
Less known than its neighbors in the North and South, Guatemala rewards visitors with its share of culture shocks and abundance of color.
Here are 25 things Guatemala is known for:
1.The Mayan Empire
Guatemala was once the center of the mighty Mayan Empire. The Mayans reached their peak between 250-900 AD before going into decline for reasons unknown.
Stone carving, huge step pyramids, and colorful local myths are just some of the relic of this titanic civilization. The Mayans were particularly known for their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, as well as their religious customs and pantheon of Gods. Visitors are often surprised to discover that the Maya are still a distinct ethnic group who live in Guatemala, and much of their ancient culture has been passed down and blended with Spanish customs.
Research into Mayan civilization is still making huge leaps. A recent archaeological survey conducted in 2018 revealed more than 60,000 structures hidden under the jungle.
Guatemala’s famous national dish is Pepián. Resembling something like a Latin American curry, Pepián is a hearty and spicy meal found all over Guatemala.
With ancient roots, the dish is believed to be based on an old Mayan recipe that has been given Spanish touches. This tasty stew is typically made with chicken, several types of chili, and a blend of herbs, spices, and roasted pumpkin seeds.
Jade sculpture and jewelry were an important part of Ancient Mayan culture. A jade seam the size of Rhode Island was discovered in recent times, and jade objects found here are known for their color and clarity.
Many tourists choose to pick up a piece of jade jewelry before leaving the country. The Jade Museum in Antigua is a particularly good place to go as it sells some beautiful ornaments adorned with ancient carvings.
Picking a jade totem to fit your Mayan astrological sign is especially popular.
4. Lake Atitlán
Guatemala is known for its lakes, but Lake Atitlán is the most famous of them all.
Located in the Sierra Madre, Lake Atitlán is part of a massive flooded volcanic crater, the deepest lake in Central America. Surrounded by volcanos and mountains, the views across the lake are quite simply stunning and attract flocks of visitors every year.
Many hotels have been built along the water’s edge so that tourists can have a tranquil few days, taking in the scenery and engaging in a number of lakeside activities. Angling is popular here for those who like to fish, and many of the surrounding towns and villages are set up for tourists looking to take boat trips out on the water.
Hike up the Indian Nose trail for aerial views over the lake or take a scuba dive to see the volcanic vents and archaeological treasures below.
5. Semuc Champay
Venture into the Guatemalan jungle near Cobán and you will find the stunning limestone pools of Semuc Champay.
Hidden in thick rainforest, a visit to Semuc feels well and truly off the beaten path. Take a swim or throw yourself off a rope swing into the vibrant azure waters. Next, head underground into the caves, which visitors are free to explore, and swim in, by candlelight.
Tikal park in Guatemala is the best place in Guatemala to see ancient Mayan temples. Walking around Tikal gives you a feeling for what a Mayan city was actually like. In addition to its extremely impressive step pyramids and ceremonial buildings, the park features ball-game courts, residential housing, and imperial palaces.
The park is also part of a protected wildlife zone which extends into Mexico and Belize. It was the first site to be protected by UNESCO for both its archaeology and its nature. Jaguars, pumas, and monkeys roam the forests around the site and an extraordinary range of flora surrounds the towering Mayan temples. If you are lucky, you may see some of the creatures who inspired the magnificent carvings on the park’s religious structures.
7. Noodle Tostadas
Tostadas are a type of snack made of fried tortillas and covered in a range of toppings. The dish resembles something like a giant nacho.
Someone somewhere, in a moment of madness, decided that a dollop of noodles would make an excellent complement to this classic dish, and so it was that noodle tostadas were born.
The odd textural clash is disturbing to some, exciting to others. You be the judge. When it is combined with lime juice, avocadoes, tomatoes, and any other number of toppings it makes a pretty tasty snack.
8. Lake Izabel
For those who like to shun the tourist route, there are many less-visited lakes in Guatemala.
Lake Izabel is a tranquil nature lovers’ dream with an exciting history. The lake itself is at the head of the Rio Dulce, which is home to a number of exotic birds and tropical fish. Take a boat from the Caribbean coast all the way to Lake Izabel to immerse yourself in nature. It is an excellent fishing spot and many indigenous communities line the side of the lake. You can live (sort of) like a local, as many of the hotels in and around the river Dulce are built in the style of indigenous housing, set on wooden stilts in the river shallows.
The highlight of Lake Izabel is the fort San Felipe, known for being a Spanish colonial deterrence against pirates. Apparently an ineffective deterrent – the fort was sacked several times by pirate raiders.
9. Artisan Textiles
Guatemala is known for its artisan textiles. Traje, a form of elaborate brightly colored textile, is a symbol of Guatemalan culture and part of traditional dress. Many locals still dress this way and look particularly fantastic at carnivals and religious festivals.
Many elements of the hand-woven garments worn in Guatemala date all the way back to the height of Mayan civilization. Although a popular souvenir choice with tourists, few take the time to understand the symbolism behind the different colors and patterns used. Look out for colorful Quetzals, Jaguars, stars, and turkeys – all-important symbols to the Maya.
You too can learn to weave at one of the many workshops run on the shores of Lake Atitlán. Make a traditional Huipal (blouse) or hair wrap of your very own.
Coffee is one of Guatemala’s primary exports, and it is important to make a pilgrimage to one of Guatemala’s many artisanal coffee shops at least once. Guatemalan coffee is enriched by the volcanic soil and humid atmosphere and is known to be particularly high quality.
It is not unusual to find the smell of coffee fills the air in Guatemalan towns. Antigua and Guatemala City are home to the kind of artisanal trendy coffee shops you would expect to find in Brooklyn. The coffee is simply gorgeous, and frequently served with tasting notes.
11. Quiriga Park
Quiriga Park is another of Guatemala’s national treasures. This ancient city once rebelled against its overlords and captured the colorfully named king Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awii, one of the Mayan’s greatest rulers.
An important city in its own right after gaining its freedom, people come to Quiriga for the spectacular array of Mayan stone sculptures. Among its many objects are what was once the tallest stone sculpture in the Americas at the time of its construction, standing at 35 feet high. The incredible human and animal figures carved in stone give a window into Mayan religious belief systems.
Guatemala is Central America’s most underrated surfing hotspot. The Pacific coast with its volcanic black sand beaches is the perfect place to ride the waves.
El Paredon is Guatemala’s most famous surf town it is known for its laid-back sleepy atmosphere. For more advanced surfers, Iztapa is the best place to find huge swells. You will discover an abundance of surf shacks here, lined with banana leaves, and sporting some comfy hammocks.
Come for the rainy season to catch the biggest waves.
The one-time capital of Spanish colonial rule in Guatemala, Antigua has preserved its historic charm. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, it is best known for its lovely 16th-century architecture and old-world aesthetic.
Popular with first-time visitors, the famous town itself has bags of atmosphere, set in a plain surrounded by rainforests and volcanos. Visit the stunning baroque churches and administrative buildings that date to the earliest periods of Spanish settlement, or wander through the monastery turned-museum here to truly step back in time. Painted in bright hues of orange, pink, blue, and yellow, just walking around the town is a treat in itself.
Take a hike up to nearby Cerro De La Cruz, to see the cross which overlooks the town.
14. Monterrico Nature Reserve
Guatemala is known for its exotic expanse of wetland. Monterrico has long been untouched by outside visitors, and until surprisingly recently was a backwater haunted only by local fisherman. Due to its unique habitat and stunning biodiversity, it has been transformed into a wildlife reserve.
Mangrove trees put down roots into the marshy waters to make a home for many species of fish as well as land animals. Look out for iguanas peacefully resting in the branches. The nature reserve itself also has one of the best black sand beaches in Guatemala. The beachfront is home to an important turtle hatchery and is a lovely place to while away the hours.
15. The Quetzal Bird
The quetzal bird adorns Guatemala’s national flag and is known for its bright colors and lengthy train which can reach up to three feet long. The bright green and red birds are known throughout Latin America from a series of myths.
The Quetzal is a symbol of freedom and they were a guide for the Mayan people. In fact, these little birds are so loved that the Guatemalans named their currency after them. Quite rare and a little shy, the best way to ensure you see them is to visit the Biotopic del Quetzal wildlife reserve in the cloud forests near Cobán.
16. Colourful Festivals
Guatemalan culture is an unusual blend of ancient Mayan traditions and Spanish Catholicism. It is worth timing any visit to Guatemala with one of their famous festivals.
Ancient traditions give Catholic holidays a unique twist. The town of Antigua in particular has some quirky traditions. During Santa Samana or holy week, Easter is celebrated with elaborate patterns of brightly dyed sawdust arranged throughout the streets. At the Quema del Diablo on December 7th, paper mâché devils are burnt in the streets to the attendance of huge crowds. The day of the dead celebrations are also unique in Guatemala, celebrated with colorful round kites, used to convey as messages to the dead.
Perhaps the most bizarre festival is the annual drunk horse racing competition in Todos Santos. What began as a protest over the Spanish ban on the indigenous riding horses, has now become a local religious tradition that marks the end of the day of the dead festival. Prospective riders drink all night then race their horses through the town. Incredibly dangerous, the festival causes a high number of violent deaths and injuries each year. It is not unusual for people to tie the drunken riders to their horses to stop them from falling off. For those with strong stomachs only!
17. Pacaya Volcano
Guatemala has many active volcanos which form the so-called ‘ring of fire’ in an arc across the country. Pacaya is one of the most famous and is particularly well-loved because it feeds a series of hot springs in the surrounding towns.
The most active volcano in Guatemala, hiking up the relatively smooth trail will enable you to see its regular pyroclastic flows and fountains of lava. As you ascend it gets pretty hot, so safety measures have been put in place to prevent injuries. Many vendors sell marshmallows which you can roast over the scalding rocks and lava deposits when you get to the top.
After a long hike, the best thing to do is take a load off in one of Pacaya’s hot-spring baths in the surrounding towns.
18. Chicken Buses
They are loud, they are colourful, they are Guatemala’s best and most exciting transportation system.
Many old American school buses end up in Central America, where they are transformed with brightly colored motifs, posters, and trinkets into a psychedelic feast for the eyes. Drivers often blare out loud music for their passengers, turning simple bus rides into a permanent party.
Although the buses leave much to be desired in terms of suspension and safety, especially along Guatemala’s questionable excuse for roads, the bumpy ride is all part of the fun.
Quetzalteca named after the Quetzal bird, is Guatemala’s national liquor. Frequently brightly colored and sickeningly sweet, popular flavors include Tamarind and hibiscus. Brewed from sugar cane, the liquor is commonly used to flavor local dishes. If the nearly 40 percent proof drink is too strong for you, try pouring it over lemonade and ice instead.
Chichicastenango is one of Guatemala’s most vibrant towns. Lesser known to tourists, who typically visit Antigua then head to the lakes, Chichi (as it is known locally) is a fantastically lively town with an outstanding market.
Many indigenous groups from the surrounding areas come to Chichi to buy and sell wears, and it is by far the best place in Guatemala to pick up any number of local craft items and textiles.
On the outskirts of the city, the local cemetery is painted in bright primary colors in what has to be one of the most cheerful graveyards in the world. The colors are not just for decoration but are also symbolic, with different members of the family getting different colors.
Finally, visit the town hall for colorful murals and the famous archaeological museum.
Fiambre is a Guatemalan dish eaten on the day of the dead. A salad which consists of up to 50 ingredients, in many ways it is more of a pile than an attempt at cooking. It is delicious all the same.
There are different versions of Fiambre depending on where you are in the country, and many families have their own special recipes. Most versions consist of charcuterie, a huge range of vegetables and cheese, and a large range of different sauces. Wash it down with a glass of Gallo (the local beer) and enjoy.
22. Spider Monkeys
Guatemala is famours for being one of the best places in the world to see spider monkeys. Spider monkeys are so-called because they resemble giant tarantulas when they hang upside down.
These curious creatures are known for being matriarchal, with the females ruling the troop. They can make some spectacular leaps, and if you are lucky you may see them crashing through the canopy over your head in one of Guatemala’s many forests.
Spider Monkeys inhabit the Mayans ruins around Tikal National Park and a wander through the park trails is one of the best ways to see them. An ancient Mayan symbol of joy and mischief, and unbelievably cute, seeing spider monkeys in the wild is one of the highlights of Guatemala.
23. Unusual Saints
Guatemala, like its neighbor Mexico, has a taste for macabre. Mayan Folk traditions, although banned by the catholic church in the 1600s have never truly left Guatemala. Instead, a series of quasi-catholic traditions have developed, which echo some of the spookier aspects of ancient Mayan beliefs.
One such tradition is the famous ‘King of the Graveyard’, or San Pasculito, a folk saint who resembles the Grim Reaper. Many people still pray to him to lift diseases and illness, although he has been banned by the catholic authorities.
Another popular religious figure, Maximón, resembles a cowboy, both in looks and behavior. Believed to be based on a former Mayan deity, he is a trickster with a taste for drinking and womanizing. Locals pray to him for love and other earthlier desires. There are many shrines to him scattered throughout the country, and if you decide to visit him remember to bring an offering such as tobacco, a popular choice for the chain-smoking saint.
The Mayans invented hot chocolate, for which we should be forever grateful. The locals have drunk hot chocolate since ancient times, although the addition of milk and sugar to make it sweet is a more recent invention.
Originally mixed with corn and chilli, drinking chocolate was typically used at religious and ceremonial events a sacred drink. Now one of their biggest exports, chocolate making classes are run throughout Guatemala. Antigua’s chocolate museum is one of the best for classes and more importantly, for tasting.
25. El Mirador
Hidden in the misty jungle, El Mirador is a Mayan settlement that includes Guatemala’s tallest pyramid. La Danta stands at over 70 feet high, and since the Maya collapse has been used for centuries as a lookout post. The building towers over the surrounding jungle which has mostly grown over the ancient city.
Although the building is spectacular in and of itself, much of the appeal of visiting it is that you have to spend days trekking through thick forest to get there like an old-fashioned explorer. Infamous, although rarely visited, the trek through dense rainforest requires some serious planning. Typically only reached by more adventurous travelers, it is well worth the effort to visit.
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